September 2005

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

Psycho Killers

I’m a bit blue this month. Like many aficionados of the dark art of mystery writing, it’s the detection part that thrills me and gets my wheels turning. At the heart of all crime writing, however, is the lamentable fact that the crime itself is what starts the whole hardboiled theater going. So here’s a secret: I find the bloody acts of violence out there abhorrent and I’m not the only one.

“When a murder is satisfied, it isn’t the beginning of the story; it’s the middle,” says Ian Rankin. “We shouldn’t forget that fact because murder has ripples. You never go back to being the same. The people that investigate these crimes never go back to being the same as they were before they started the investigation. The people’s whose lives have been affected, the victim’s families, even the murderer themselves are profoundly changed. That’s why murder is still the most interesting crime for us to write about, because it is the only crime where something unique is taken away from the world, something that can’t be replaced.”

So in a month when Dennis Rader, whom I won’t glorify with his idiotic moniker, gets to revel in being caught (CBS has already begun production on a television movie) and People has raced to the stands with an exclusive on life inside San Quintin for Scott Peterson, I get a bit low.

So if we’re going to talk about murderers, I can’t stand to talk about the dour creeps that inhabit the average grocery-store thriller this month. Let’s dabble in those strangers so very over-the-top that it’s difficult to take them seriously.

First of all, November might as well be a national holiday for fictional murders with the return of Thomas Harris’s notorious creation Hannibal Lecter in the prequel Behind the Mask. All you other lunatics get the month off.

Originally sighted only briefly in Harris’ 1981 thriller-slash-procedural Red Dragon, Lecter came to full fruition and world renown in Silence of the Lambs. It’s worth noting that if you happen to be a fan of the films and didn’t read through Hannibal, it’s worth it just to see Harris take his most valuable creation completely off the rails. The serial killer runs off with Clarice Starling in domestic bliss? What a sequel that would have made.

But Behind the Mask will surely focus on the good doctor’s tortured childhood in war-torn Europe and the ghastly end of his beloved sister Mischa, an episode briefly related in the pages of Hannibal. It’s been theorized that Clarice represents Mischa in the doctor’s eyes and that’s why she’s the only one truly safe as he invokes his revenge fantasies. Only a reading of the latest book will reveal whether we get some insight into what makes Lecter tick. Personally, I’d rather not know. It’s like finding out that Darth Vader started out as Hayden Christensen. Some things are better left unsaid.

Although certainly not a crime novel, Bret Easton Ellis’ newest, Lunar Park, has some mystery elements to it, being an amalgamation of an old-fashioned ghost story and another chapter in the author’s fictional biography. Besides, it would be unfair to write about psycho killers without mentioning that Lunar Park sees the return of Ellis’s most notorious creation. Patrick Bateman, the all-singing, all-dancing axe man of American Psycho, has a cameo in the book. Bateman was always an interesting case because, like Hannibal, he got completely away from the author when he wasn’t looking. While Ellis was trying to make a satirical statement on American greed, his nutty creation went off and made both of them famous, first when the publisher passed on it and secondly when it captured the public imagination as the unspeakable book. Lunar Park certainly has shades of Stephen King (and I’m sure that Bateman’s appearance borrows some from The Dark Half) but it’s refreshing to see the former boy wonder grow up some.

I know I wasn’t going to stray into the serious side but I feel like I woefully neglected Lawrence Block’s new Matt Scudder novel, All the Flowers Are Dying, earlier this year. The fact that it features the killer with no name that has been haunting the aging detective since Hope To Die is just icing on the cake. Scudder has attracted his own psycho killers before, most notably James Leo Motley from A Ticket To the Boneyard, who creepily promises to kill Scudder and “all his women.” The new book has all the familiar ticks of the long-running series but Block has nicely managed to get into his stalker’s head while giving his hard-nosed private eye more than his usual bumps and bruises. For a lighter take from Block, it’s also worth picking up his collection Enough Rope, featuring the murderous little lawyer Martin Ehrengraf who simply “disappears” anyone standing in the way of his cases.

Back on the strange side of things, I just remembered David Prill’s 1996 satire, Serial Killer Days. The townies of Standard Springs, Minnesota have been dealing with a serial killer for 20 years. In a terribly funny twist on hometown hero worship, the good folk of the village have turned the annual killing spree into a commercial event, holding a parade and even a pageant to elect the year’s “Scream Queen.” The city fathers don’t even want the killer caught because it’s bad for business. Prill has mined the heartland for humor in other books including the funeral home setting in The Unnatural and the Christian right wing in Second Coming Attractions but Serial Killer Days remains his best work.

There’s also new business in Jeff Lindsay’s Dearly Devoted Dexter. Dexter Morgan, introduced in Darkly Dreaming Dexter, is a blood spatter analyst with the Miami Dade Police Department. It’s a fair enough setting and could have been fodder for a workmanlike police procedural. In a ghoulish twist, however, dear Dexter also happens to be possessed by what he calls his “Dark Passenger,” the voices in his head that prompt him to kill people. Lots of people. By the beginning of his new book, Dexter has already dismembered his 40th victim -- he only stalks, kills and mutilates criminals, mostly pedophiles and other murderers. “Dexter the Avenger” has already planned out 41 when he gets sidetracked into tracking another serial killer named Dr. Danco, who develops in Dexter a strange sense of professional admiration. It’s a lovingly crafted voice, as Dexter is quietly polite and at the same time deviously crafty about his macabre obsession.

“Normally, I feel pleasantly mellow for several days after one of my Nights Out, but the very next morning after MacGregor’s hasty exit I was still all aquiver with eagerness,” Dexter tells us. “I wanted very badly to find the photographer in the red cowboy boots and make a clean sweep of it. I am a tidy monster, and I do like to finish whatever I begin, and to know that someone was out there clumping around in those ridiculous shoes, carrying a camera that had seen far too much, made me anxious to follow those footprints and wrap up my two-part project.”

Finally, there’s Neil Gaiman. The waves of publicity have already started for Anansi Boys and I’m sure it will be just as popular as more recent kid-friendly fare like Coraline and The Wolves in the Wall. That said, people forget that Gaiman was and is still, at heart, a horror writer. The most absurd and certainly most frightening representation of serial killers has to be his interlude in the middle of The Doll’s House, part of the Sandman Library. “Collectors” still stands as an inspired work, one that even Gaiman recognized, keeping mum about its subject until the comic book hit the stands so no one would “borrow” the idea. A Midwestern hotel finds itself home to a “Cereal Convention,” in which dozens of the deranged gather to visit panels like “There Is No Sanity Clause,” and watch late-night viewings of The Collector.

“And you, you that call yourself collectors,” Dream declares, “Until now you have all sustained fantasies in which you are the maltreated heroes of your own stories. Comforting daydreams in which, ultimately, you are shown to be in the right. No more. For all of you, the dream is over. I have taken it away. For this is my judgment on you: that you shall know, at all times, and forever, exactly what you are. And you shall know just how little that means.”

That people should recognize, and be pained by, and regret the wrongs they inflict on one another. What a killer idea.